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Kentucky Bar Association v. Howell

Supreme Court of Kentucky

March 14, 2019

KENTUCKY BAR ASSOCIATION MOVANT
v.
RACHELLE NICHOLE HOWELL RESPONDENT

          OPINION AND ORDER

         Appellee, Rachelle Nichole Howell, was admitted to the practice of law in the Commonwealth of Kentucky on October 7, 2003. Her Kentucky Bar Association (KBA) number is 89867 and her current bar roster address is 305 Circle Drive, Shepherdsville, Kentucky 40165. Her disciplinary record includes a private admonition in 2010 for failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing several clients and failing to keep those clients reasonably informed about the status of their matters. Further, she had a private admonition in 2015 for failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client, for disobeying an obligation under the rules of a tribunal, [1] and for improperly providing financial assistance to a client for pending litigation. Finally, a private admonition with conditions was issued in 2016 for failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client, for failing to promptly comply with a reasonable request for information, and for failing to take reasonable steps to protect the client's interest upon termination of representation by failing to refund the unearned advance-fee payment.

         Based on ten consolidated KBA files, the Board of Governors unanimously recommends this Court find Howell guilty of violating SCR 3.130-1.3 (nine counts); 3.130-1.4(a)(3); 3.130-1.4(a)(4) (nine counts); 3.130-1.15(e); 3.130-1.16(d) (ten counts); and 3.130-8.1(b).

         For these violations, the Board recommends this Court suspend Howell for ninety days with an additional ninety-one days to be probated for a period of two years with conditions. The recommended terms of Howell's probation are: (1) continuing her monitoring agreement with Kentucky Lawyers Assistance Program (KYLAP); (2) obtaining, at her expense, at least three hours of continuing legal education on topics relevant to law office management within the next twelve months; (3) attending, at her expense, the next scheduled Ethics and Professionalism Enhancement Program (EPEP); (4) making restitution within the two-year period of her probation; and (5) paying the costs associated with this proceeding in accordance with SCR 3.450. For the following reasons, we agree with the Board that Howell committed the following ethical violations, but reject the Board's recommended sanction.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The current case spans ten consolidated KBA files. We will address each in turn.

         A. KBA File Number 16-DIS-24112

         Habib Bousso paid Howell $1, 500 to represent him in divorce proceedings. Howell filed motions for a case management conference and fpr the appointment of a mediator. However, she did not appear in court when the motions were scheduled to be heard. Howell did not complete Bousso's representation, and her level of communication with opposing counsel and Bousso in the divorce proceeding was lacking. When a bar complaint was filed, Howell responded to Bar Counsel's letter, claiming she had issued a partial refund check to Bousso. Howell testified that she was not able to locate Bousso's file and that she did not recall obtaining a copy of the alleged refund check. She further stated she did not recall responding to Bar Counsel's letter requesting information concerning her claim by indicating a partial refund had been issued.

         Ultimately, the Inquiry Commission issued a two-count charge, alleging Howell had violated SCR 3.l3O(l.l6)(d) (by failing to protect Bousso's interests by giving him reasonable notice and by failing to refund any unearned fee) and 3.130(8. l)(b) (by knowingly failing to respond to a lawful demand for information from an admissions or disciplinary authority).

         B. KBA File Number 16-DIS-24256

         William Stogner hired Howell to seek the dismissal of criminal charges and to have his record expunged of those charges. He paid Howell $500 for this service. Howell obtained the dismissal, but failed to keep Stogner informed and to complete the expungement process. Stogner had to obtain another attorney for the expungement proceedings.

         The Inquiry Commission filed a four-count charge against Howell related to Stogner's case, alleging Howell had violated: (1) SCR 3.130-1.3 (by failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing Stogner); (2) 3.130-1.4(a)(3) (by failing to keep Stogner reasonably informed about the status of his case); (3) 3.130-1.4(a)(4) (by failing to promptly comply with Stogner's reasonable requests for information); and (4) 3.130-1.16(d) (by failing to protect Stogner's interest by giving him reasonable notice, surrendering his file, and returning any unearned fee).

         C. KBA File Number 16-DIS-24286

         John Rader II paid Howell a total of $ 1, 400 to represent him in a divorce matter. While Howell filed the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage and a Motion to request a case management conference, she failed to communicate the status of the matter to Rader. He was unable to reach Howell for three months. Howell acknowledged that she did not complete the representation, did not timely communicate with Rader, and failed to return his file. She acknowledged she owes Rader $247, the unearned balance due from his retainer.

         In this file, the Inquiry Commission filed a three-count charge against Howell, alleging she had violated: (1) SCR 3.130-1.3 (by failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing Rader); (2) 3.130-1.4(a)(4) (by failing to promptly comply with Rader's reasonable requests for information); and (3) 3.130-1.16(d) (by failing to protect Rader's interests by giving him reasonable notice, surrendering his file, and refunding any unearned fee).

         D. KBA File Number 16-DIS-24311

         Walter Brennan hired Howell to represent him in a child custody and child abuse case pending in juvenile court. He paid her a $1, 500 retainer. The juvenile court proceeding was successfully completed. However, Howell failed to appear in three court proceedings. Brennan attempted to reach Howell by phone and email to no avail. Howell refunded the retainer and admitted that she failed to deposit Brennan's advance-fee payment in her escrow account.

         The Inquiry Commission filed a four-count charge against Howell, alleging she had violated: (1) SCR 3.130-1.3 (by failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing Brennan); (2) 3.130-1.4(a)(4) (by failing to promptly comply with Brennan's reasonable requests for information); (3) 3.130-1.15(e) (by failing to deposit fees and expenses that had been paid in advance into a client trust account); and (4) 3.130-1.16(d) (by failing to protect Brennan's interests by giving him reasonable notice and surrendering his file).

         E. KBA File Number 16-DIS-24312

         A third party (Kim Sills) paid $250 for Howell to represent Rickey Crockett. Crockett asked Howell to assist him in stopping his estranged wife's harassing communications. After the harassment came to an end, Crockett hired Howell to represent him in a divorce action. Howell performed various services for Crockett regarding the divorce proceedings. She was paid $4, 500 for these services. Shortly thereafter, Sills and Crockett were unable to reach Howell by text messages, emails, or phone calls. Crockett terminated the representation and asked Howell to provide an itemized statement. Howell failed to provide said statement, and Sills filed a bar complaint. Howell then prepared a billing statement which indicated a total fee of $1, 550. Howell agrees that Crockett is due a refund of $2, 950 of the $4, 500 retainer

         Ultimately, the Inquiry Commission filed a three-count charge against Howell related to Crockett's case, alleging Howell had violated: (1) SCR 3.130-1.3 (by failing to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing Howell); (2) 3.130-1.4(a)(4) (by failing to promptly comply with Crockett's reasonable requests for information); and (3) 3.130-1.16(d) (by failing to protect Crockett's interest by giving him reasonable notice, surrendering his file, and refunding unearned fee).

         F. KBA File ...


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